We live in a culture that is not good at dealing with grief, a culture that often finds loss too much to handle. And yet the world is a constant cycle of loss and gain, of death and life. Every year, every season, every day we have profound and compelling metaphors of change, love and loss and this time of year–traditionally Samhain in the west–is a particular instance of ways we can face rather than try to eradicate grief.
Giving grief space
Recently in a group I’m part of, a woman told a story of awful loss that was one of the most tender and beautiful stories of grief I’d ever heard. She was widowed young with two small children and thousands of miles from home. But she was living in a traditional Sudanese village where the care taken around death was extraordinary. In this ‘poor’ society, being given months of time off work following bereavement was commonplace. Similarly, her local community rallied to cook for her family and ensured that they had no ordinary daily stresses for over a month. Despite the obvious enormity of the loss, it was clear that the time and care given enabled this family to negotiate loss without it ripping apart their emotional health.
I came across another beautiful example of loss in fiction recently. I would spoil the novel by naming it, but when a character I’d grown to love as a reader died, the sense of a right ending and the balance between the world being bereft yet still gifted with her memory were brilliantly achieved.
Grieving to remap mind and heart
Living in a world that has more than its share of grief across the length of the pandemic and with increasing signs of economic, political and climate instability, it’s surely time we became better acquainted with how to negotiate grief well. This is not a counsel for wallowing, but a plea for a life that is both more humane and richer in ritual; a plea that neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor supports in her book The Grieving Brain.
The brain devotes lots of effort to mapping where our loved ones are while they are alive, so that we can find them when we need them.
[…] Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve, […] for the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time. You are navigating your life despite the fact that they have been stolen from you, a premise that makes no sense…
Grieving then becomes the process of remaking the interior map of this relationship in favour of an entirely new map.
If a person we love is missing, then our brain assumes they are far away and will be found later. The idea that the person is simply no longer in this dimensional world, that there are no here, now, and close dimensions, is not logical.
The ephemeral sense of closeness with our loved ones exists in the physical, tangible hardware of our brain.
Like an internal GPS that maps our relationships, the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain simply struggles to make sense of where the loved one can possibly be. But far from being helped by distraction or ‘getting over loss’ quickly, it seems that it’s much healthier for the bereaved to negotiate their own internal but changed relationships with those they have lost.
Grieving to become more loving
Doing so is more likely to strengthen other relationships, O’Connor believes. This is because our brains have been changed by the love we had with the person we’ve lost. Knowing love makes us a more loving person and we carry this forward into new encounters in the present and future, knowing that there will be other mind-bending losses but that each one, treated with dignity and care, makes both the lost loved one and those that continue more than they could have been alone.
When I was in ministry I never came away from conducting a funeral without an immense sense of how important, vital and valuable life was. In the midst of holding a space for the immensity of people’s grief, it was always the sense of affirming life that shone above everything else.
The poet Liesel Mueller puts it like this in her final collection, Alive Together:
How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness
and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:
as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
As autumn moves towards winter we watch the trees in a final blaze of glory before they become pared back to their winter selves. Grief is a paring back and often utterly disorienting, but if we allow it to transform from static grief to the long process of grieving, we don’t remain in perpetual winter, just as the trees will know new seasons of growth, leaf and bud.
Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,
Rilke tells us.
Grieving to become more alive
There doesn’t have to be anything morbid or stuck about the long and often meandering process of grief.
This is how Mary Oliver puts it in a poem from the collection Blue Horses:
The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac, part 3
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Here’s to living and writing stories that have room for grief so that life can go on flourishing.